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Two old enemies

January 27, 2016

Two old enemies of mine resurfaced on the same day in The Times on Monday. I just can’t see those guys off; they keep coming back for more, like the Joker and the Penguin.

One is the misuse of slither for sliver. Robert Crampton used it in a piece about trying to live like a Stone Age hunter; apparently when trying to fashion a weapon he chipped off a slither of flint. But slither means to squirm along the ground. What he chipped off was a sliver, i.e. a small, narrow fragment.

The other is a particularly stubborn foe: the construction would have liked to have done. This bit of excessive grammatising is found in the works of even the most stylish, literary writers. But it is still wrong. This particular example comes from Andrew Billen’s television review, where he stated that he would have liked to have seen something. That may sound unexceptionable; that’s what’s so insidious. Let’s analyse it. Would have liked is the past tense of would like – it is a synonym for wanted. Therefore Billen was saying: “I wanted to have seen it”. What? He wanted to have already seen it when he was watching the programme? No, of course not. He just wanted to see it. Therefore I would have liked to see is correct.

There’s another possibility, though. Perhaps he means that he wants, now, to have had the experience of seeing it; he could be making a statement about how he feels in the present, not the past. In that case, I would like to have seen is the correct form.

The subtleties of English grammar thus give us two different forms to express two different perspectives here. But running them both together allows us to express neither.

So that’s that pair of villains sorted out (dusts hands).

Until the next time…

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One Comment
  1. Dave Clark permalink

    Dear Brandon
    I didn’t learn any English grammar at school (you went there too, I remember you), but I did subsequently live in Spain. In Spanish “would have liked” would be the imperfect subjunctive rather than the past tense. If you look at it that way, Andrew Billen’s sentence makes sense. I really struggled with the subjuntivo imperfecto, and the way I remembered it was by thinking “if my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle.” The “had” is imperfect subjunctive, not past tense.

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